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Homeless Will Be Caught Up In Georgia's Voter Purge

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The state of Georgia is purging thousands of voters from its rolls this morning. These are voters who have not participated in recent elections or responded to official notices. It's a controversial policy, and it disproportionately affects one group - the homeless. Stephanie Stokes of member station WABE in Atlanta has more.

STEPHANIE STOKES, BYLINE: Looking through the list of purged voters, one homeless agency stands out - Crossroads Community Ministries in midtown Atlanta. The executive director, Tony Johns, shows me the main thing they do.

TONY JOHNS: All right. So, Stephanie, this is our mail room. It's available to our clients, Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

STOKES: It's a small room with instructions all over the walls for sorting mail.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Next for mail?

STOKES: One by one, people approach a counter and say their names. A volunteer then looks for any letters or packages in a series of wood bins lined up along the back wall.

It's like a P.O. box for people who are homeless, right?

JOHNS: That's exactly it.

STOKES: Johns says about 800 people pick up mail here. Most don't have a fixed address of their own. So Johns says they really need an organization like Crossroads. A lot of state services, like voter registration, still depend on mail.

JOHNS: This is one of their few connections to that larger system, where they could possibly receive not only benefits and things like that but participate in democracy itself.

STOKES: Well, only to a point. WABE and APM reports found many may no longer be able to participate in elections. In 2017, the state removed nearly 500 voters from this address alone and another 400 from other homeless agencies in the city. That didn't surprise the advocates I spoke to.

SEAN YOUNG: Every single voting problem is especially hard for people who are struggling with housing - every single one.

STOKES: Sean Young is legal director at the ACLU of Georgia. He says go through Georgia's other regulations, which researchers at Northern Illinois ranked among the bottom third for voting access in the country, like how people must register 30 days before elections.

YOUNG: Lower-income people move more frequently, and many don't know they have to update their registration every single time.

STOKES: Then the state also requires photo ID at the polls. People often lose their IDs when they become homeless.

YOUNG: A lot of voting laws are written with the perspective of a middle-class or wealthy person in mind.

STOKES: But they're also written to ensure elections are fair, according to Jake Evans. He's an attorney in Atlanta who's involved in conservative politics.

JAKE EVANS: The reality is, we have to have rules to ensure that who is eligible to vote can vote. It's hard to do that.

STOKES: Because, he says, elections are complex. In Georgia, Evans doesn't think those rules keep homeless people from voting.

EVANS: I'm confident that if these individuals, like most individuals in Georgia, want to vote, they're going to have every opportunity to vote.

STOKES: Fewer than 10% of people registered to Atlanta homeless agencies have voted since 2016. Statewide, voter turnout was around 60% and 70%. Still, those numbers don't capture every voter without a home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Next for mail?

STOKES: John Edwards steps up to the Crossroads mailroom counter. He empties out a little black pouch to show me all of the documents he's received here.

JOHN EDWARDS: And look what I got. All this back right there - all that came.

STOKES: There's a state ID.

You got your voter card, too? Is there one?

EDWARDS: There it is, yeah. See that?

STOKES: And a free picture ID just for elections. Edwards says he plans to use it.

EDWARDS: You got to always speak. Your voice will be heard because your opinion counts.

STOKES: If Edwards continues to vote, the state won't flag him as an active. But for another hundred Crossroads clients, that's already happened. Unless they contacted election officials, Georgia canceled their registrations in the latest round of purchase.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Stokes in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "CLOUDS (INSIGHT VOL. 3)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.